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Schools and Educational Settings (Essential Infrastructure and Opening During Emergencies)

Volume 702: debated on Wednesday 3 November 2021

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for educational settings including early years, schools, colleges and universities to be classified as essential infrastructure and remain open to all students during public health and other national emergencies; and for connected purposes.

Between the start of the pandemic and July 2021, British children were out of their classrooms for almost half of the available school days as a result of nationwide shutdowns and isolations. The majority of the country’s universities switched to remote learning, with many students still not having returned to full face-to-face teaching. Those closures wielded a hammer blow to our children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing. The mechanisms this Bill will put in place will safeguard the education, mental health and life chances of those already hardest hit and of future generations.

Let me take a moment to give special thanks to the teachers and support staff who did all they could to keep children learning over the past 18 months. I especially welcome the support for the Bill of Children’s Commissioners past and present, of two former Children’s Ministers and significantly, of the parents group, UsforThem, which has campaigned day and night to keep schools fully open and our children learning in the classroom as they should be.

It is beyond doubt that for those who engaged in online learning, less material was covered than would have been covered in the classroom. Moreover, many children could not participate in online learning at all. School closures and the move to online learning increased the existing inequalities between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and their better-off peers. The facts speak for themselves and testify to what parents know instinctively. A tablet is no substitute for in-person schooling and the inspiration and guidance that teachers and support staff provide. A laptop cannot replace the enriching, nurturing and skills-building environment that the school community gives to our children, enabling them to thrive and develop to reach their potential. A screen cannot replace the social interaction and friendships that are the essential building blocks of childhood. Perhaps worst of all, school closures increased the existing inequalities between those from disadvantaged backgrounds and their better-off peers. We must face and address head on the brutal reality that school closures have been a national disaster for our children.

Over the last 18 months, the four horsemen of the education apocalypse have galloped towards our young people, threatening their futures and holding them back from climbing the ladder of opportunity. The negative impacts of the pandemic are stark. School closures have contributed to a widening attainment gap and worsening mental health, not to mention numerous safeguarding hazards and diminished life chances. Even prior to the pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were already 18 months of learning behind their better-off peers by the time they took their GCSEs. The pandemic has turned the attainment gap into a chasm, undoing the significant amount of progress made over this last decade.

Recent research published by the Education Policy Institute has shown that at national level the average learning losses for primary school pupils were 3.4 months in maths and 2.2 months in reading. For disadvantaged pupils, learning loss was even greater, with 4.2 months lost in maths and 2.7 months in reading. A tsunami of mental health problems now threatens to overwhelm our young people. One in six children now has a probable mental health disorder, up from one in nine in 2017. The Department for Education itself has concluded that the evidence for the impacts of school closures on mental health and wellbeing is “substantial” and “consistent”.

Schools and educational settings play a vital role in safeguarding our young people from harm. Without that safety net, too many vulnerable youngsters have slipped through the cracks. Devastating figures from the Centre for Social Justice show that 100,000 children have failed to return to school, for the most part, since schools reopened. During the first lockdown, 94% of vulnerable children were not in school. A significant increase in social service referrals, domestic abuse and child safeguarding concerns has been reported between April 2020 and March 2021, which the directors of children’s services across the country have linked to the pandemic restrictions and the closure of childcare settings.

It is estimated that school closures will cost our young people between £78 billion and £154 billion in lost earnings over the course of their lifetimes, and those figures are for an optimistic scenario. In the worst case, as much as £463 billion could be lost. Report after report speaks to these harms, but they were not an unfortunate inevitability of an international public health emergency. Our children have missed more than double the amount of school as children in other countries, including France, Spain, Austria and Lithuania. British children have missed more school than any other country in Europe except Italy.

I come to my Schools and Educational Settings (Essential Infrastructure and Opening During Emergencies) Bill. Currently, the term “essential infrastructure” is used in our legislation to describe the facilities and systems necessary for a country to function, and upon which our daily lives depend. It would be inconceivable to close power stations, hospitals or food retailers during a time of crisis, and rightly so—they are lifelines to our communities. The educational devastation of the last 18 months has made it abundantly clear that for children, families and society, schools must also be seen as lifelines. In guidance issued in 2020, the Government defined educational institutions as “essential infrastructure” along with providers of power, healthcare and water. But despite this nominal definition, during the first and third lockdowns schools were closed to most pupils while other essential infrastructure remained open.

It is our duty now to treat our schools as essential infrastructure, both in word, and more importantly, in deed. To that end, this Bill will recognise and define educational settings as essential infrastructure in practice by enshrining in statute that we must never close our schools again, save in the most dire and exceptional circumstances. Furthermore, the Bill will put in place a triple lock of protections. This will mean that before any national or regional closure, the advice of the Children’s Commissioner must first be sought on whether such a closure is necessary, and laid before Parliament. We rightly follow the science and advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation when it comes to our health, so it is only logical that we must also follow the advice provided by those with the best interests of our children at the heart of their mandate. Secondly, any proposed school closure must be debated and approved by the House. Thirdly, in the event of an agreed closure, every three weeks that schools remain closed, the Education Secretary must return to Parliament, having sought the advice of the Children’s Commissioner, to seek its re-approval for a continued closure.

This triple lock will ensure that the needs and rights of children and young people are considered and upheld. It will mean that the relevant experts are consulted and their advice acted upon. It will ensure that this House is fully involved and accountable for any decisions to close schools and disrupt schooling. Lastly, it will make certain that any disruption will be tightly time-limited. These measures are no less than our children deserve. Diogenes once said that

“the foundation of every state is the education of its youth”.

We must learn from our experiences over the course of the pandemic to ensure that we prioritise children’s education. We owe it to our young people to safeguard the educational futures that covid-19 put on hold. Anything less would be a dereliction of duty.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Robert Halfon, Edward Timpson, Tim Loughton, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Christian Wakeford, Tom Hunt, Brendan Clarke-Smith, Greg Smith, Siobhan Baillie, Miriam Cates, Munira Wilson and David Warburton present the Bill.

Robert Halfon accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 February 2022, and to be printed (Bill 184).